What does horror tell us about our fears and anxieties under capitalism? What do reanimated bodies, vampires, and zombies tell us about what is monstrous about our world? Team Advantage discusses David McNally’s book, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism.
A transcript follows the break.
Kate: I hate horror because I’m a huge baby who’s scared by everything.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining me today are Karen —
Kate: Patrick —
Patrick: [dramatically] Good evening.
Kate: And Joel.
Joel: Hello, hello.
Kate: We’ve assembled today to discuss something very spooky and very sinister — capitalism. And, in fact, we’re here to talk about how horror can help us think about, and think through, a lot of what capitalism does and how the anxieties and the fears that are created by capitalism get articulated through horror as a genre, in films and novels and the like. And I think, for a lot of people, this may seem kind of odd at first — so you’re probably asking yourself, “What could schlocky blood, gore, and jump scares possibly have to do with capitalism?” Or, even more, “What does any of this have to do with Marx or Marxism? What do zombies or vampires or monsters have to do with the labour theory of value or the nature of the commodity form?” But it kind of turns out that horror and the grotesque are really useful for making strange or shocking what has essentially been normalized in our society, and that’s actually, I think, one of the reasons that Marx makes such great use of horror metaphors in Capital — so, talking about blood and vampires and spectres and monstrous machine is like a tool or a lens through which the reader can understand the forces, often abstract, of alienation and death and dismemberment that characterize life under capitalism. So, this episode is going to be based largely on the work of David McNally and his book Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism, and what we’re going to be doing is going through a number of classic horror monsters or tropes and exploring what these tell us about capitalism and its associated fears and anxieties.
Patrick: So, our first monster is known to pretty much everyone, but often misunderstood. Frankenstein’s creature most readily calls to mind Boris Karloff’s iconic film portrayal in the 1930s where the monster is mute and zombie-like and not at all intelligent. People who’ve encountered the original novel, maybe in the classroom — I teach it every year — will have found that it portrays quite a different story and character, and the book certainly encourages still-relevant explorations of scientific hubris, identity, gender, the self, and the other. As much as science fiction offers speculation about our human condition and the future, the stories can also serve as a remnant of once-pervasive social anxiety. So, what we see in Frankenstein is the modern practice of dissection, of dismembering a deceased body to see its anatomical structure, is the social issue; and the understanding of this as a problem fades, but the fear remains with us.
Joel: So, for David McNally, Frankenstein can be further understood by examining the fear of dissection and anatomies experienced by working people in Europe’s early modern to early Industrial periods. Several authors have dug into the scientific milieu from which Frankenstein sprung, but not with a particular on the rural proletariat and wage labour. With the European Renaissance came a renewed enthusiasm for understanding the material world, including the workings of the human body. We often see Renaissance drawings of the body’s inner workings, but where did artists, surgeons, collectors, and other interested parties get the actual bodies? Almost always, the bodies were those of poor folks or condemned criminals.
Karen: So, gleefully dissecting bodies without any prior form of consent doesn’t strike us as particularly ethical, but most people today don’t have a cultural memory as this being an issue or problem, as Patrick alluded to. Leaving one’s body to science strikes us as morally good and helpful; it’s not a marker of class. Keeping bodies out of the hands of surgeons used to be an effort of solidarity among working people. This was a much more complex situation than just the superstitious poor versus the science-minded elites, or changing rituals around death. If the bodies of the working class were commodified in life through having to sell their labour, then they could — at least sometimes — be rescued from commodification in death by friendly societies or mobs. In the early modern period in Europe — the 15th century on — public dissection on the bodies of criminals became a popular form of entertainment for paying spectators in the Renaissance. We have to keep in mind that these anatomies didn’t have any scientific value, but they were actually displays of social control over the proletariat.
Kate: One thing that’s really interesting to me about this is that this kind of dissection of bodies, or of using the bodies of working-class and proletarian and other oppressed people, is actually a fairly constant thoroughfare throughout capitalism in a way you might not expect because it seems such an over-the-top kind of atrocity or an over-the-top form of grotesqueness that, in our mind, gets relegated to a time far away. But when I was reading about this, I was thinking about German scientists who did experiments on African people in East Africa as part of studies to learn how to treat what they called the “sleeping sickness.” And the main reason they did this is that the sleeping sickness was well known in Europe and Africa at the time, during the early 20th century, but no one really had a good idea of how to treat it or cure it or anything like that, and European colonial powers were worried that the spread of the sickness among colonized populations would slow down colonial projects and would impede the African workforce and their colonial projects in Africa, so German scientists like Robert Koch in East Africa essentially set up concentration camps — and “concentration camps” is literally what he called them — and he was treating Indigenous East African people, up to 1000 people a day, with atoxyl — and atoxyl has arsenic in it, it’s extremely dangerous. And it’s very hard to determine, when you look at, say, this particular history, whether the primary concern of these scientists was to cure East Africans suffering from this disease or to use them as guinea pigs to ascertain the efficiency of remedies that could be used in the treatment of illnesses that also impacted Europeans. And then what’s also interesting, to me, is: you see this kind of experimentation on the body basically come back from the colonies to Europe during the Holocaust. It’s one of the most famous — and, I think, enduring — atrocities that occurs within the Holocaust, is the experimentation of, quote, “scientists” like Joseph Mengele on people in concentration camps like Auschwitz. So, it’s this really awful thoroughfare throughout capitalism starting from the enclosure of the commons in Europe and being exported to colonized populations in Africa and then boomeranging back to the metropole as colonialism comes home, and the colonial race-making projects that this type of experimentation facilitated come home, to Europe.
Patrick: And so, what we’re trying to make clear here is that capitalism depends on older forms of life having disintegrated. And so there’s the active disintegration, or the dissection, of Indigenous lives through colonization and then the disintegration and the dissection of pre-capitalist social forms by the advent of capitalism through things like the enclosure. So, the enclosure of the English commons in the early modern period can be seen as a form of dissection, or an anatomy, formed on the landscape, and quite literally — if you’ve ever looked at the rural landscape of Britain, it is dotted by these hedge rows and rock walls that carve out the land from any sense of an expanse or a commons. And the social effect was the transformation of the peasantry to the proletariat. And the ruling class came to describe the poor as monstrous bodies with unflattering terms borrowed from literature and folklore, and this body was feminized and animalized. And harsh laws were introduced to punish those transgressing new social and labour norms, meaning more people were put to death for more reasons. And, moreover, in England, the demand for corpses for anatomies and for scientific study blows up in the 18th century and through the 19th century, and scientific study far outpaced the availability of legally-sourced and legitimate bodies, and so, in the 18th century, we see corpse-stealing by resurrectionists, and that, in the 19th century, continues to be a problem. And the most famous case of this is the Burke and Hare scandal in 1828 in Edinburgh. Burke and Hare were a pair of grave robbers who sold bodies to anatomists, and they basically graduated from grave robbing to murder in order to get the bodies they needed, and they sold the bodies, the sixteen people that they killed, to the anatomist Robert Knox (who is actually another interesting character because he’s this hysterical racialist in the middle of the 19th century, but that’s maybe a story for another day).
Karen: By the 1800s, funerals because more widely held for the working class, which supplanted wakes, and then plots, monuments, and caskets became more obvious as class markers — you’d have different materials and contexts for these things to denote higher or lower classes. As with many terms, Shakespeare popularized using “monstrous” to describe excesses of human behaviour rather than non-human things — so, by the centuries that we’re talking about, it’s quite common to describe things as monstrous, but maybe not, specifically, monsters as we’re talking about now as supernatural entities. Later writers like Francis Bacon used monster metaphors to describe undesirable multitudes — so, that would be the crowd or the mob — while Edmond Burke consolidated many mob tropes in the years of the French Revolution to anti-revolutionary ends.
Joel: Wollstonecraft and Godwin and Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and their circle were liberals, or radical liberals, sympathetic to uprisings but seeing them originate in the sickness of the mob or the social sickness of repression.
Patrick: So, yeah. Many people — or, probably, most people — are familiar with the basic aspects of the story: Victor Frankenstein goes off to university in the south of Germany; through his hubris, he decides that he is going to study all the great sciences of chemistry and biology. Shelley very clearly sets out that he makes this horrible error because he oversteps the bounds of proper knowledge and, in trying to conquer death, creates this monster. And so he drives himself to illness in creating this thing, and then, when it finally comes to life, he sees is, is absolutely shocked by this monstrosity that he creates, and then he runs away, flees from his creation, and then descends into sickness. And when he finally returns to try to find the monster, it has fled, and then the horror story flows from there as people are killed by this monster, etc etc. It’s a really wonderful story, but, at the core of it, there’s these aspects of the outer limits of proper science and the way that hubris can lead to the creation of monsters; but, also, we can see Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, evident in it because Victor is vilified by the fact that he is associated with grave robbers and dissection. So, this sense of the proletarian monster is very evident.
Joel: This particular angle of the class dynamics behind grave robbing and anatomists and stealing parts and reanimating them or whatever, it gets lost, often, in the telling of Frankenstein, particularly its modern versions. Usually it’s just, like, “Oh, yeah, it’s creepy to use dead bodies and stitch them together and make a monster. That’s scary.” But it was a real anxiety at the time that, if you died, your parts could be stolen and used for public spectacle or used for whatever experiments or for whatever purpose and you would no longer have control over them. So, not only were you, as a proletarian, not in control of most of your waking hours because you had to work for a living, you also didn’t even have peace in death because your body would then get recommodified yet again and put through this system of grave robbing and anatomists.
Karen: Yeah, and, as we mentioned before, funerals weren’t even very common for the working class; it was usually a wake to celebrate your life and your body is not seen, it was just for very public, very famous figures that the body was displayed. So, this struck working-class people really off-putting to see — much as we would think about it today, it’s the same, that that would be really disgusting and humiliating for those people and you as a participant in society.
Kate: So, our next monster hardly needs an introduction or, really, much in the way of background to be understood as a powerful metaphor for the capitalist class because, unlike Frankenstein —which was published well before Marx’s writing in the 1830s — the most famous single work of vampire fiction, Dracula by Bram Stoker, was published in 1897, almost 18 years after Marx’s death, though vampires were a topic throughout the 19th century and feature a shockingly large amount in Marxist writing. And I think this is because Marx and Stoker basically would have accessed the same foundational works and cultural tropes about vampires because they were, in many ways, contemporaries, especially when it comes to these horror/folklore ideas like vampires — so, they’re both accessing European plays and operas, 18th century poems, Byron’s stories, all of these things. And a lot of scholars believe that it’s actually very helpful to see Marx’s master work, volume one of Capital, as a contribution to gothic literature and very much as something that, if not being part of the horror genre itself, definitely interacting with horror as a genre and with gothic novels as a genre and being influenced by, and influencing, them.
Joel: Yeah. Just a quick note, there — in particular, William Clare Roberts has a book called Marx’s Inferno, and he makes the argument that Capital: Volume 1 is actually almost analogous, in many ways, to Dante’s Inferno and the descent into the circles of Hell that Dante writes about.
Kate: And what’s actually very interesting about that book is: it’s essentially a literary reading of Capital: Volume 1; and, as someone who has read and studied Capital: Volume 1, every time I think about that, it seems completely ludicrous because it’s mostly a book about numbers and how many yards of cloth, linen, it takes to make a coat, but Capital: Volume 1 really does function, in many ways, as a literary work, and it has a lot of storytelling moments in it, and Marx is kind of using these storytelling abilities to describe the way capital causes suffering in a way that more straightforward and dry descriptions really can’t. And, in fact, the unserious or the less scholarly parts of his writing are really crucial to understanding his style of analysis and of dialectics — they’re not colourful add-ons to the text, they’re fundamental, and they’re fundamental to understanding capital and to understanding Marxism. And the reason monster metaphors are so effective in Capital is because Marx sees them as the only way to express how labour — literal blood and literal sweat — are turned into sweat for accumulation under industrial capitalism.
Joel: Yeah. I just wanted to jump in here on the readings of Capital and the horrific bits and how they’re interspersed with talking about math and prices and abstract stuff. One of the best ways of thinking about this that somebody related to me once was thinking about it in terms of going through a haunted house and, when things get too scary, there’s a breakroom where you do math on a chalkboard, and then, once you’ve calmed down enough, you then go into the next room and it’s another awful haunted house display.
Karen: Yeah, and McNally’s book, someone compared it to sitting down on a bench for a while, which I guess you could also do in a haunted house when it’s too much and you need a little joke or reference of Shakespeare quote or something that pulls you back to, “Okay, I’m paying attention and I’m not overwhelmed.”
Kate: I really like the haunted house metaphor that Joel brought up because, when you’re reading Capital, you’re basically opening this box of horrors, and inside every box of horrors is another box of horrors, so it’s basically like Marx opening up the factory and being like, “Well, well, well — what do we have here?” And then there’s that famous quote, which I believe is Engels in this case: “Behind Manchester stands Mississippi,” and it’s basically like, “Okay, you have this factory — where are we getting all of the things that go into the factory?” and opening up another box of absolute horror. And it really is very much that descent — I think there’s a lot of different metaphors that we could use to it, but the horror is absolutely essential to understanding it.
Patrick: Yeah, and so, a lot of philosophical models and 20th century critical theory applies lenses to situations in order to try and better interpret them. What dialectics does is that it reverses this by looking at situations and processes themselves and describing and formalizing what’s been observed. So, literary and supernatural metaphors are perfect for informing a new language describing capital that involves doubling, reversals, irony, and parody. And the whole point is that it’s all in service of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, to lift off all of our enchantments and illusions, as it were, that blind us to the truths in our world. So, many of the most familiar concepts and examples given in Capital have to do with things unseen or intangible — use value and exchange value, abstract labour, and even commodities — and when it makes a commodity interchangeable with another thing is hidden. And so, wealth is the chief among these unseen entities. Marx explores the idea that capital is fetishized commodities — precious metals and raw resources — as absurd, abstract means to ends, which is different than the conventional understanding of a fetish to be taken with the material properties.
Kate: And Joel mentioned earlier that a narrative device used in Capital echoes Dante’s Inferno — so, this journey to the underworld, or the hell — and this is a really interesting reversal of this idea of: you’re leaving ignorance, you’re emerging from the darkness of the cave and you’re seeing the light, you’re ascending to knowledge, when Marx is doing the opposite. Marx is taking us, in the modern industrial world, to the factory, to the workshop, to the place where labouring bodies produce value for capitalists, and what the argument of the structure of the text is is that only by grasping the horrors of industrial work, the horror of the factory, of the workshop, of the plantation, can readers actually hope to understand the worker-capitalist relationship in abstract terms, the fact that it is not a contract between equals — it’s a horrifying relationship of exploitation. And, in these descriptions that Marx has of women and children working in these foundries and mines and factories, Marx often unleashes the phrase of “bloodsucking” in the service of making these horrors really visceral.
Karen: Gothic literature finds its settings in places devoid of light, sunlight, connection, and warmth: dungeons, castles, attics, secret passages. As Kate alluded to, Marx finds similar qualities in industrial spaces that the working poor have to spend most of their working hours in. Protagonists in gothic novels often face constant threats of bodily harm, which, again, labour is experienced in literal sweatshop conditions. Mutilation, as Marx describes it, was common enough, hearkening back to the themes that we discussed with Frankenstein, where you’re getting dissected, dismembered, but you’re not dead, you’re alive to experience these horrors first-person, or someone you work with, or most of the people you know. So, not a great scene.
Joel: Marx uses the vampire metaphor three times in his chapter on the working day. It’s powerful because vampires feed off of living labour, but they are invisible and unseen — like capital — and, by their undead nature, they represent the dead labour of capital infrastructure, tools, machinery, buildings reanimated by the production they enable. Then, to quote Marx, “Living labour appears merely as a means to realize objectified dead labour, to penetrate it with an animating soul while losing its own soul to it.” If capitalists are vampires, the labourers become zombies as whole living people, reduced to bodies forced into repetitive, time-efficient motions.
Kate: So, what’s happening here is that work time — the time you spend selling your labour — basically becomes a dead time, almost, because you are selling your life to capitalists hour by hour. And, because labour power is a commodity, a person is, essentially, a thing, and inanimate things take on lifelike and human qualities. So, I think it’s really no mystery that, from very early pulp novels to recent blockbusters, regular, ordinary working people find a lot of aspects of monster tales really, eerily relatable. And this might sound like we’re pushing a metaphor too far in terms of understanding these things, but I think these metaphors are really a really powerful way of understanding things that are often very abstract and very unseen in our day-to-day lives, and also that these metaphors are ways that we understand and process, essentially, what is happening to us. For a very famous vampire example, Count Dracula fits this gothic Marxism framework really well — he’s literally an old-money aristocrat turned landlord in England. So, Marxists have noted that Dracula, as a character, basically embodies a lot of themes of alienation that link this novel to Capital’s key ideas. Obviously, this was not intentional — Bram Stoker, the author, was a liberal whose popular fiction was not particularly political in any way — but I think it’s still fair to make that link because they’re coming from the same cultural milieu and dealing with the same crises of capitalism and the same social forces within society, so they are picking up on the same themes and emergence of particular forms of capitalism and particular forms of alienation. And what’s really interesting in this book is that Dracula’s not actually out for destruction — Dracula is out for accumulation. He is trying to hoard gold, he is trying to hoard property; he wants perpetual victims as fellow vampires and slaves, and his big, evil plan is monopoly economic control of the city of London. This is absolutely a villain for a capitalist time and a capitalist age.
Joel: Yeah, he’s an aristocrat that’s trying to integrate himself into high society in London, that comes from outside or whatever.
Patrick: So, if vampires are the aristocratic and bourgeois elite sucking the blood from society, we can start to look at, also, the proletarian monster. We’ve sort of referenced that already with Frankenstein, but one of the most famous proletarian monsters is, of course, zombies. One of the things that’s really interesting about the McNally book, and that I think is really important to try and do if we’re going to discuss the monstrous in capitalist society, is to actually try and blow that up, to look beyond the boundaries of the Western cultural imagination. So, I mean, zombies, witchcraft, vampirism, these are things that are really familiar to us in our pop cultural environment from the 20th and early 21st century Western society, but there’s a whole wide world of folklore and urban legends and mythology, and some of it can help us a lot. Think about the trope of capitalist monstrosity and how that operates in the era of globalization. And just to bring this back to some things we’ve already talked about, when we noted above that Shelley’s Frankenstein really shows the influence of her radical father, William Godwin, and the vilification of anatomists and grave diggers. That vilification connects Shelley’s Frankenstein to that longer history of popular and working-class opposition to the poor and condemned of being dissected by anatomists. And I’m kind of in the same vein of E. P. Thompson in the way that E. P. Thompson talks about the enormous condescension of posterity about the lost causes in working-class history. McNally picks up some really interesting threads to try and show that these stories are not just irrational holdovers — so, a really important thing about the opposition to anatomists is that McNally says that’s not just some religious holdover about the significance of the body; he says, basically, Protestant England in the 17th century demystified the body. So, this was a modern political response to the destruction of bodies in a specific regime of labour and power. And what’s really neat about what McNally does — and I think is really is — is he brings the same perspectives to his examination of modern popular myths of monsters, possessions, vampires, and zombies in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa and, in particular, in West Africa. And I think the point is really important because he connect the radical responses to the social tensions and fears of the 18th and 19th centuries to the myths and urban legends that have developed in modern Africa. He lets us avoid the stupid and racist pitfalls that would mistake what are really responses to the monstrous uncertainty of modern capitalism for some sort of backwardness and superstition. So, McNally calls these things “fables of modernity,” and he draws from them, and he says that these stories are poetic knowledge that capture the truth about experience beyond the empirical. And I’ll just quote him here. McNally says, “Rather than pre-modern superstitions, therefore, fantastic depictions of global capitalism as a vampire system that extracts and sells body parts captures something very real about the economic universe that we inhabit.”
Kate: And McNally really runs down through this very interesting and fascinating litany of fables — so, stories from Nigerian newspaper reports of people boarding motorcycle taxis and, when they put on their helmets, become zombies that shoot money from their mouths (so, literally, enthralled ATMs for capitalists), or, in southwestern Congo, these fables of people who are possessed and devoured by diamonds. And the argument here is that these stories are responses to the upending of social life by global capitalism. So, when McNally is looking at contemporary African ideas of witchcraft, it’s about how the witch fits within a modern response to Western individual acquisition that developed in the form of communal ethics of reciprocity and redistribution, which I think is really interesting.
Joel: The witch that appears in this modern Igbo folklore is therefore not a dangerous outsider but is assumed as part of the community; someone who has retreated to their own personal wants and desires, who takes from the community. And, unsurprisingly, the capitalist change in social relations, which drives more people into waged work outside of the home, has a charged gender dimension — and so, in Nigeria, we see fears of witchcraft connected to fears of women’s sexuality.
Karen: Similarly, vampire stories in Africa appear to have only emerged in the early 20th century and are closely connected to the penetration of the capitalist labour discipline. Time discipline, repetitive body motions, and exhaustion are explained by connecting them to mysterious and occult forces that such the lifeblood from people.
Patrick: What I love about this is that McNally argues that these folklore and urban legends, for all their fantastic monsters, are a defetishizing — so, we’ve talked about this concept of fetishizing already — and this is because they are directly concerned with the material harm of the market and try to seek out the precise sites in which labouring bodies are at risk. So, the explanatory mode might be a vampire or a zombie or a witch, but it’s really concrete — when you go and do these things, people are being harmed and broken and destroyed, and it’s a really fascinating way of talking about these urban legends and these myths that have developed as a way of characterizing a concrete realization of the status one has in these new social relations.
Joel: And perhaps the most interesting contemporary monster stalking the landscape of modern capitalist Africa is the zombie. The idea of the zombie was brought to Haiti and the Americas in the traditions that came with African slaves stolen and fed to the beast of European colonial plantation production. The modern Hollywood zombie is lifted from that Afro-Caribbean tradition, and it has been re-transmitted to Africa through the circuits of globalized capitalist entertainment. But, in its return to Africa, the modern zombie has been incorporated into the older traditions of the zombie. Specifically, African zombies are uniquely connected to the idea of the labourer zombie.
Kate: So, the zombie that developed in Haitian folklore was a person who was made dead and who was made an un-person not by their own will, and not through their own volition, but through a coercive process. And this really makes sense when you consider that Haiti was a slave society that was based around stripping people of their home, of their families, of cultural and identity markers, and forcing them to labour under the conditions of slavery, under immense conditions of violence. So, the zombie developing in that particular way is 100% related to the material way society in Haiti was structured, and it was in this way that the zombie first entered North American popular culture. What happens when the zombie enters North American popular culture is it gets this kind of twist on it where the zombie is this shambling creature that is controlled by some greater power and compelled to do their bidding, and then this gets transformed again in the 60s and the 70s and becomes this figure of mindless consumption.
Joel: The zombie, and its origins in slavery, as an analogy to slavery, I think, is really, really interesting. And it’s most interesting links, to me, is when you read a liberal’s articulation or justification for slavery at the time. John Locke, for example, when he talks about slavery, rationalizes it as a kind of deferred death — the slave would have, and could have, been killed by the master, but instead is allowed to labour at the master’s will for however long before their death. A kind of liberal rationalization for slavery, was: “That person is pretty much already dead, we just haven’t killed them yet.” And so, for that to become the content of the zombie makes total sense to me.
Kate: What I think is really interesting in this particular bit is how the figure of the zombie changes — in a way that I think is really reflective of the inability of white society, and of American society as it’s shaped by whiteness, to confront the horrors of slavery and the way in which slavery was enacted upon enslaved Africans — by taking this original figure of the zombie that is extremely horrifying, of a person being made an un-person against their consent, and turning it into a joke, basically a punch line, like “This is something that’s kind of funny, it’s mindless, they’re controlled by some greater power.” It really loses its horror and its true proletarian roots in West African and Haitian culture as it gets refracted through American culture. And that’s really interesting to me because it, to me, almost reads as an inability to confront what that piece of folklore actually meant and the type of society it was reflecting.
Joel: Yeah, and I think that the way that the zombie transformed in the 1960s and 70s — it’s really closely associated with George A. Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, which is a great movie, and it’s the image of those zombies shuffling around the mall that the survivors are hiding within where you see that real transformation in the cultural representation of the zombie. And I think I would be willing to defend a cultural critique that’s going on in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — I think, for the time and place where he’s taken that idea, picked it up from his clear critique of racial politics that exists in Night of the Living Dead and then funnelled it into this critique of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, I think that Romero is kind of defendable on those grounds and that the cultural vision there is really interesting. But yeah, I totally agree, Kate, that it’s kind of like that problem of all the imitators that have aped it have completely leeched any of the innovation or interest out of what Romero was doing, and it’s become this kind of kitsch punchline that is, itself, as consumable as the flesh eaten by the zombies.
Kate: And I think one of the really interesting things that David McNally ends his text and his analysis with is that, even though it’s a study of horror and of the absolute worst kind of excesses and monstrosities of global capitalism, it really has this kernel of hope in it and this hopeful ending which, maybe, is just something that publishers make you put in books these days, but it really struck me when I read it, so I would like to read out the quote, which is: “Just as there is no accumulated wealth without the labour of the poor, so there can be no vampires without the blood of the living. And in the sheer, stubborn survival of poor people, their persistent struggle for a better life, hope resides. As much as capital possesses them, invading their bodies and spirits, the world’s labouring poor can never fully be colonized.” And I think that’s a nice sentiment that kind of ties in a lot of the interesting horror mechanics that he’s been talking about, and I really like the way it places horror — which is a genre that, personally, I absolutely detest and will have nothing to do with it — but it made me really rethink that, because horror so often gets isolated as complete schlock, as something that is not serious, that is not really reflecting anything real about our society, but these narratives that are playing on people’s fears and anxieties are about capitalism and about the fears it creates; and. in that, they also reflect the fact that the capitalist class is reliant on working people and the way in which it sows the seeds for its own destruction, and I really enjoyed that.
Karen: So, there’s an attempt in postmodern critical theory to claim that monsters are actually positive or are parts of ourselves that should be wholly accepted. Do we find that this is a helpful reading? And, if not, what are the problems with celebrating monsters in cultural works?
Joel: So, from this, I’m reading a bit of the self-help, “the things you demonize are actually the parts of yourself that you don’t accept and you need to reclaim them,” that kind of rationale.
Karen: Yeah. We’re all the monsters, really.
Joel: The monsters were inside us all along.
Karen: Uh huh.
Kate: The real monsters were the friends we made along the way.
Joel: Yeah. So, there’s a bit of that, and then there’s a bit of the inversion of the hero/antihero thing, where the monster has become the hero or are displayed positively, that goes on culturally. To me, both of those readings, there’s interesting stuff that you can draw from them, but if you follow our analysis that is trying to look at capitalism, they avoid the antagonism that’s going on.
Karen: Yeah, it’s definitely a way to square the circle of, “Well, there’s nothing that is objectionable in our society that we can embrace at all, and it’s just different forms of living and working and things, and we don’t have to be antagonistic towards our society,” which isn’t very reassuring, I think, for us here.
Kate: I mean, to be honest — I’m about to sound super bitter and cranky here — it reminds me a lot of really annoying tendencies in other theories. It reminded me of the extremely annoying turn in feminist theory that I grew up with of, “Actually, I like wearing makeup. Actually, I like doing all of these things. It’s for me. Yes, coincidentally, it plays exactly into the way gender works in our society and the way women have been sexualized, but it’s not about that; actually, it’s good.” And this, when I was reading it, really struck me as the same thing of, “Actually, it’s good and I like it,” and I just think that’s an extremely boring of interpolating the world around you, and it’s something that I really don’t have any patience for anymore.
Patrick: I was reading again — flipping through McNally, and he takes on this question of the postmodern monster head-on, and he basically rubbishes it and says it ends up setting up these false binaries and flattening out actual differences, and he’s like, the monstrosity of the capitalism system is not on an equal footing with these kind of self-help, personal monstrosities that might try to be rescued in that kind of self-help logic, and it will erase big master narratives of social struggle in favour of these binary oppositions of self and other and whatnot, it just loses the plot. And I found that a really helpful way to think about it while I was reading the text.
Joel: Another thing about these kinds of explanations is how liberal theory solves problems, which is like, “Oh, if only we could all engage in dialogue together, then all of the problems would disappear,” and there’s no acknowledgement that, no, what’s animating the antagonism in the first place is the drastic differences in power, for example.
Karen: Yeah, and I think McNally makes this point in his book, where you can’t just have critical theory for itself, and that’s why Marx, for instance, uses these horror metaphors so strongly, because you kind of can’t look at the world and say, “Everything’s fine.” I mean, that’s not what we’re doing, and that’s not how we want it to be, so you can’t square it by deluding yourself, which is another theme that we are getting at, here, throughout. After a flurry of interest in monsters in the 2000s to 2010s — so, think Twilight, The Walking Dead, etc — monsters seem less popular now. More ethereal kinds of horror are in — movies like It Follows, Lovecraft revivals, diseases and contagion, that’s kind of where our minds are at now. Are supernatural monsters a perpetual recurrence in our society, or are they just dated in the way that a lot of Victorian-era cultural tropes tend to be?
Kate: So, I actually thought the idea of this as a Victorian-era cultural trope was really interesting because I think our society is reacting to almost the same things that Victorian society was reacting to. And what I mean by this is that I would argue that the promulgation of ghost stories and seances in Victorian society was a reaction to this extreme intensification of the relationship between space and time — like, all of a sudden you have telegraphs and railways, and people’s sense of time and place was getting really warped, and I think ghost stories are stories about people’s sense of time and place being really warped, so they’re a material reaction to it. And I think, with things like social media, with the financialization of the economy, with big data, that is also happening in our society, this intensification of the way our sense of time and place and space has been completely warped by the society we live in. So, to me, it makes total sense that the reaction to is this ethereal type of horror that’s dealing with the uncertainty and the anxiety that those processes engender within us.
Patrick: Yeah, and I think one of the other things that (and, Kate, I’m different than you; I’m an enormous horror buff, and I’ll cop to that — you are actually, in fact, largely correct — that most of it is quite schlocky, so if you hate it, you’re not wrong) but I think one of the things that happens in contemporary horror — I mean, there’s still monsters being made, and monsters are still around, and they can still be a bit of a draw, but I think speaking to that moment and the problems that we’re facing, one of the other things that you really see emerging as horrific is technology and the unseen as things that are shaping people’s anxiety. So, you’re increasingly seeing technological horrors, where engagement with things like the Internet and smartphones and other forms of technology that constrain one’s ability to be outside of a visible eye, or outside of interrogation, is increasingly common. I mean, not always well-done, and sometimes quite hackneyed and stupid, but, nevertheless, this overwhelming anxiety that there’s nowhere to escape from the eyes that are watching you is an increasingly common trope in horror these days. And I think that that element of “We’re all in the panopticon all the time” is really evident, and I think it really speaks to, at some respects, the technological side of where this contemporary capitalist relationship is.
Joel: If you follow the Snowden revelations that came out over the last few years, we are absolutely all haunted all the time by the national security state. And that doesn’t mean that they actually are listening all the time, but they could if they wanted, is the thing. And [laughs] that’s a kind of haunting, that’s a kind of thing you can’t escape, it’s a kind of curse. I think a lot of those anxieties are coming out in those kinds of stories.
Karen: Yeah, you’ll be talking about something, looking at your phone, there’s an ad for the thing you’re talking about. That seems like an example of “Is it real, is it a coincidence” that seems to mirror a lot of what I’ve seen in horror movies. I’m watching a lot of horror because it’s October, so I’m definitely a fan of some tropes but haven’t seen a lot of the classics — so, things like the first Halloween movie, it’s like, is it there or not there? We do have this understanding, in the last 10-15 years, that, yeah, people are always listening or seeing us (or they could be), and that’s paranoia, it’s really happening.
Kate: We’re picking up on this theme — the way people’s work lives have been totally eroded and you are always being haunted by work. A lot of people are never able to actually disconnect from their work, whether you’re a white-collar worker or you’re working in the gig economy or you’re constantly on call or you have multiple jobs, it is not the same way capitalism used to be structured in the global North, where you could draw in some sense of boundary between “my life at work” and “my life that is not work.” So I think, in many ways, people are being haunted perpetually by their jobs and by work.
Joel: By manager or by a disembodied app of some sort.
Patrick: And I think one of the things we’ve also seen transform — and I think this also speaks to — the contemporary world is throwing up all sorts of things, so you can draw all sorts of parallels. I mean, we are seeing things like eco-horrors coming back in. Eco-horror was kind of a genre that popped up largely in the 1970s, and you’re starting to see that coming back again. Again, not always well-enacted. The one that immediately comes to mind is that terrible Shyamalan movie, The Happening or whatever it was called, with the —
Joel: Oh yeah, with the killer trees?
Patrick: Yeah, that make you kill you yourself. These things are coming back. But I’m also interested in what’s going to come out of COVID-19, because the thing that I immediately leapt to is one of my favourite movies, John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982, where — it’s basically a body-snatcher movie, but you don’t know who’s actually been taken over by The Thing, and they just look like normal people, and, if you’re along with them in a close space, suddenly you’re going to be infected and taken over. [laughs] And it’s like, oh, yeah! COVID really makes me understand the creeping paranoia of these things. But, also, reflecting on that into a wider social realm, that creeping paranoia of what does it mean to be in close proximity with other people for my bodily health and well-being, has really serious implications on our workplaces. I mean, we just look at the numbers of infected coming out of Amazon and the absurd numbers of people being made ill there, or the cargo plant in the south of Calgary, those sorts of things. But, also, we talked a little bit in our episodes about COVID when it first happened — what are the implications for organizing and building forms of solidarity when the very act that is the thing that working people have, which is our ability to mass together in solidarity, is circumscribed by this hidden horror haunting us through our days? And I think there’s a really strong resonance — pop culture is going to deal with this; but also, I think, our imaginary of the ghosts, and the haunting, and the monstrous, and the body horror, and all these sorts of things are things that can speak to the experience of the COVID crisis.
Joel: And, just picking up on the paranoia angle — I think it relates a lot to the conspiracy theories that we’re seeing spread like wildfire in this COVID era, particularly the QAnon stuff. In a sense, they’re grasping at something that is kind of true, which is that the elites in our economic system really don’t give a shit about everyone else and are —
Kate: And, also, they kind of are all pedophiles, apparently.
Karen: Yeah, that’s pretty true.
Joel: There’s a grain of truth to it. For those that have watched the first season of True Detective, what develops in that horror series is that there’s a conspiracy among the economic and political elites to run child trafficking and murder and a weird cult or whatever, and that’s essentially the same story that the QAnon seems to be picking up. But, yeah, there are these disturbing aspects to it, and I just think it speaks to how alienating the world we live in is, how we can see these enormous disparities in wealth and in power between different types of people based on their economic position, and the vastly superior kinds of powers that the very rich and powerful can have compared to an ordinary person.
Patrick: And I think, then, that speaks to why the monster, to some degree, recedes from view. I think the slasher killer is scary in the 1970s with Mike Myers in Halloween because you fled to the suburbs to be safe and the violence comes to you, and it’s interpersonal violence, and that’s really the level that you have to be scared at because, frankly, white suburban people person — what other threats to yourself are there, right? Whereas the depersonalized monstrosity of the current world is, really: that level of objective interpersonal violence can recede, or gets abstracted into, the whole world can, in fact, be this threat and danger, and the force behind it is unseen and unseeable, and unknowable, even.
Kate: On behalf of everyone here at The Alberta Advantage, we hope you have enjoyed our exploration of David McNally’s Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism. You can buy it online or at a store that sells books. Happy Halloween, and take care out there. Bye, everyone!
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